It is a well-known fact that for women their own four walls are one of the most dangerous places in the world. Women’s rights organisations have been warning for weeks of the danger that the Corona pandemic poses to victims of domestic violence. In view of the current self-isolation measures, domestic violence is on the rise and highlights the urgent need for action, which has existed for decades.
Crises affect people to varying degrees. Without counter measures, not only already existing social inequalities are more apparent, new challenges for disadvantaged groups also emerge. For example, supposedly gender-neutral policies intensify inequalities between genders – as shown by the research of Christa Schlager and Elisabeth Klatzer. The EU’s austerity policy established in the aftermath of the 2008/2009 financial crisis, not only affected women differently from men, but also more severely. For instance, during her research, Sylvia Walby came across a connection between social cuts and an increase of violence after 2008. The current COVID-19 crisis and the economic crisis as a consequence therefore also affect women differently from men.
Increase in violence
Women's organisations have been raising the alarm for weeks: due to the quarantine measures imposed in connection with the current pandemic, a massive increase in domestic violence is expected. During the lockdown, China saw a doubling of registered cases; the figure in Wuhan was even three times as high. India already reported a doubling of cases after the first week of the newly implemented measures. In view of the increased difficulties to seek help outside people’s own four walls, the current increase of domestic violence is particularly threatening. Women and children living under those circumstances, do not only find themselves in particularly difficult conditions; social distancing also removes external social control. Contacting information centres or escaping to women’s shelters, which were often already at full capacity before the crisis, is made even more difficult.
First Member States are taking action
The figures on domestic violence are rising dramatically in the first Member States. During the first eight days since curfews had come into force, France saw an increase of registered cases by 32 % and even 36 % in Paris. France is therefore developing an emergency alert system, which should work in pharmacies and supermarkets. This will involve opening advice centres in supermarkets, for example. Women affected in France and Spain can use the codework “Mask 19” to get help, whereupon pharmacists will call the police. In France, victims shall also be placed in hotels. Denmark also reports an increase in requests for places in women’s shelters. In Germany, for example, more online requests were registered, as well as an increase in calls to hotlines of over 20%. According to experts, the maintenance of the hotlines, but also an increase in particular in online support, is key. The fact that some countries, such as Austria, have increased funds for online support makes sense, as contact via telephone in a flat, which is shared with the attacker, is made more difficult. Austria has simplified the opportunity to apply for an interim injunction. Information material has been displayed in supermarkets and funds for the 24-hour helpline have been increased. So far, there has been a slight increase in Austria in the number of bans on entry and thus in the number of known cases of violence. However, even beyond the measures already taken, it is to be hoped that such Member State measures will find further imitators. Taking measures for the protection of affected women and children at EU level would also be desirable. The Group of Experts on Actions against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO) also calls on the members of the Istanbul Convention to maintain support services and adapt them to the changed circumstances.
No EU Measures yet
Only a few weeks after the Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli, presented the new Gender Equality Strategy, fighting violence against women has become even more urgent. The European Commission itself is currently in crisis mode; however, as important fighting the current pandemic is, the protection of people in vulnerable situations should by no means be neglected. The Gender Equality Strategy has defined the protection against violence as one of its prioritised issues. Hence, the ratification and the full implementation of the Istanbul Convention is a declared target. In view of the current situation, both short-term and long-term measures are urgently required. So far, the Commission has not yet announced any concrete measures. However, the Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli, already called on Member States to shape their crisis policy in gender-sensitive way. On 7 April, Eyelyn Regner, Chair of the Women's Rights Committee, called on the EU and Member States to take action in the face of rising incidents of violence and to mitigate the greater impact of the crisis on women.
Terry Reintke, Green MEP, discussed the current increase of domestic violence within the framework of a Webinar and hopes that the Commission will take action. It would make sense to increase the Social Fund and to maintain the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) in its unbureaucratic form. She urged “the Commission and the Member States to complement social distance measures with measures against domestic violence. This includes in particular increased funding for domestic violence prevention measures, further development of the helpline and the establishment of a support network in the Member States.”
We all have our part to play
Paying attention and not to turn a blind eye to violence is always important – not only in times of the COVID-19 crisis – and could be a potential lifesaver. The general advice to neighbours is to interrupt a potential violent situation in the neighbouring flat – be it by ringing the doorbell or by calling the police. Apart from an acute case of violence, putting up flyers with hotline numbers on the stairs is as useful as speaking to people, who might be affected, when one meets them on their own. If neighbours are not sure how best to proceed in such a situation, they can also seek advice via one of the Help hotlines. Both Member States and Commission are called upon to introduce sufficient measures to increase the generally underfunded victim protection sector. The figures coming from countries such as China and France should be warning enough.